Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Stars Without Number

Our Stars Without Number game is blowing my mind. I’m going to keep recapping the sessions for anyone who is on the fence about playing a sci-fi game that ISN’T Trek or Star Wars.

The second last session is recapped on the blog here:

The last session here:

One bit of context before we start.

I decided when I set up this game that interstellar travel was not a “thing” on a wide scale yet. They have colonized every planet and moon in the system, as well as parts of the asteroid belt, and they are starting to bump up against resource problems and population problems as they are having to build space stations to house a growing population. 

The idea is to mirror our current situation on Earth but bump it up to the whole solar system. 

So there is only one way to travel to other galaxies, that’s the Gemini device, it creates a gate to a random location millions of light years away a location in space that is in two places at once (thus “Gemini”). There is a lottery to win the opportunity to go through the gate, secure rare resources and return, the gate remains open for 1 month after it is created, and jumps cannot be recreated. If you fail to get back to the gate within a month it closes and you are forever lost. 

25 missions have gone out, one came back. The PC’s mission is the second one to return safely.

The crew returned back from Alpha Centauri early, with their stores only at 4 mining units, and a small trove of native alien materials with potential medical and commercial applications. 

The engineering tech on their ship (NPC) had killed the communications tech (NPC) after she discovered that he was smuggling an alien life form (a crystalline crab like creature that duplicates when they absorb enough energy). He threw her body out the airlock while the PCs were planetside, and when they got back he claimed she had died in an accident and he tossed her body as he panicked. The two had some vocal arguments that everyone knew about, so his “I panicked” claim was at least plausible.

The PCs bought his ruse, except one, the ship’s engineer. 

The engineer confronted the NPC, used his talk ability to press him to confess, and after some conversation threw in with the engineering tech in order to get a cut of the money he would get for smuggling the alien back to Earth. They manufactured an “engine problem” to convince everyone to return to the Sol system early.

Two of the PCs were suspicious of the engine problem, so they used relevant abilities to check the systems. I used opposed checks to determine if they could detect the subterfuge, but they failed, so as far as all but two of the PCs were concerned, the ship had an engine problem and had to return to the Sol system. Their mission was over about 20 days early.

So they returned through the gate back to the Sol system and they were debriefed at a space station near Mercury. We RP’d that out, with the PC who was involved in the smuggling sweating out the whole process. They talked about every alien they had encountered, how the ship had been damaged and repaired, everything they could remember.

They were told that their whole ship would be checked, stem to stern, to ensure that there weren’t any alien lifeforms aboard, and that they would be medically checked over for any sort of alien presence in their bodies. They were told to go back into the ship and collect all of their personal belongings and they would be taken for medical checkups.

At this point the PC engineer is freaking out. The ship was going to be completely investigated so their cargo would be found. So he hatched a desperate plan. He retrieved the alien creature and stored it in a bag. The alien was being kept in cold storage as the cold made it “sleep”, when he removed it from the cold locker it was curled up and looked like a lump of crystal. 

I told him I would roll to see how long it stayed curled up and when it would start moving given that it was out of the cold.

When the guard showed up to escort him off the ship the PC offered him a bribe to let him take off a “souvenir” of his trip, “just a cool rock I found”, and he opened the bag to show the guard. The creature still looked like a lump of crystal. The PC had “talk” as a skill, so it was a skill check to see if he could persuade the guard to take the bribe. I made it a 10 as this was tough.

The check was successful.

The whole crew were given physicals, and they were discharged for two weeks, after which they were to report to a space station orbiting Earth and collect their payouts for the mission. In that downtime the PC Engineer and the NPC technician left, and arranged to meet the NPC tech’s contact in one week. In that time the engineer assembled a small unit on an asteroid where he kept the alien creature. He and the tech duplicated the creature until they had 102 of them, one for each of the accomplices, and a hundred to sell off to the NPC’s buyer.

The buyer shows up, they negotiate a price but don’t tell the buyer that the aliens can be replicated, the buyer leaves, the NPC tech takes off, he’s gone for good. The PC engineer stores his creature safely in the cold and returns to meet his fellow crew members.

In the two weeks before they meet again they are all contacted by the press, they are celebrities being the 2nd ship to return from a drive jump, 25 others have left and not returned by the deadline (when the gate collapses). They are not allowed to speak to anyone at this point though as the military is still keeping a wrap on things. 

In this setting the Earth is now all farmland, land and ocean, in order to produce food for a completely settled solar system. Only the hyper wealthy live on the planet on huge private estates, there is a minimal population to service the machines that harvest the crops, and there are a few spots where tourists can walk the Earth under a blue sky, but otherwise the planet is entirely agricultural and thriving with animals of all kinds. 

There are floating towers in orbit around the planet, called spikes, like cylindrical skyscrapers, all pointing away from the Earth, there are hundreds of these towers and they house the entirety of Earth’s non wealthy population. 

They meet on one of those towers in a private room at a bar, there is a representative of the company that owns their ship, Dhalgren Space, here to see them, he has 4 heavily armed and armored guards with him, and there is a bar all around the private room, filled with people. 

The representative is Gallo Mase, the director of operations for Dhalgren Space.

The PC crewmembers show up to the meeting, the NPC crewmembers are not there.

Gallo makes small talk with them then lays it out, giving them a few options, this was all RP’d out:

  1. Their share of the haul is 400,000 credits each, this will give the crew 2,800,000 credits to spend, along with a bonus for signing over their rights to any of the commercial and medical applications they brought back, giving them a total of approximately 4,000,000 between them. 
  2. He offers them the opportunity to stay on and crew on the Tartarus (they ship they took to Alpha Centauri), the owner is happy with the haul, his profit was large, the ship will now become a deep space transport, heavily armed to deal with pirates, transporting vital weapons and tech for his company, Dhalgren Space. It will be operating on a run to the outer colonies, lots of pirates and danger. 
  3. They can end their contracts with Dhalgren space and sign up on another ship (I had two options available, a fuel harvesting ship for Jupiter and a repair ship working in the inner planets).
  4. They had enough credits to buy their own corvette (I had stats and blueprints for two ships available).
  5. The owner of the Tartarus was willing to part with it, the ship was retrofitted before it’s  deep space mission and it won’t be going again (the deep space jumps are awarded by lottery, it won’t be winning the lottery twice). He is willing to sell if they are interested.

They talked for a bit and decided that they wanted to buy the Tartarus, it had some sentimental value, so they wanted to keep it.

They then negotiated with Gallo for the price

One thing I love about this game is that if you want to use your skills you have to make a case before the roll is made. Also, they allow you to collaborate if a second player can make a relevant skill based contribution, they give a bonus to the other player’s roll.

So they bargained with Gallo, over the course of the back and forth they made a few points:
  1. The ship had been through an intergalactic jump gate, there was no way to know if the ship was damaged or altered in any way, so Dhalgren Space would have a hard time selling it
  2. The ship was retrofitted before leaving, and was a few years old when they retrofitted it, not to mention that it was a prison ship beforehand and had seen action
  3. It was slow, compared to a new ship they could get for a similar price

Once they had made their case I made a skill check roll using the engineer’s talk skill, I made this a difficulty 10 check as well as this was a hard bargain. They were successful, bargained the price down to 2.5 M credits, and signed the papers. 

They went from being crew on a ship to owning their own ship. A benchmark in the campaign and a nice reward for the success of their first mission.

Which of course was good news for me, as the ship had transported an alien computer that had merged with the ship’s systems and taken it over. They took the computer off the ship, but I decided that it had left behind some traces that were growing slowly and would eventually become active again. I’m thinking I may have it become an AI that has some nefarious agenda but works with them for a while to gain their trust

Bwah ha ha ha ha. 

So they left the bar happy and ready to crew their own ship.

Then, in the starport waiting for the transport that would take them to their ship, the military arrived, 8 heavily armed soldiers and a high ranking officer, accompanied by 6 cyber-dogs (cyborg enhanced military dogs). They decided to go along peacefully, they learned in the first few sessions that combat in the game was deadly, and they knew they were outmatched.

The military sat them down in a room and briefed them. 

In the two weeks since they came back a ship was found between the asteroid belt and Mars, adrift. It was the TLS Gormenghast. It was found by a patrol boat, the TLS Tars Tarkas, the patrol crew boarded in space suits, found the Gormenghast crew all dead of exposure, and some of burns. They took the bodies and headed back to the nearest space station off Phobos to investigate, hauling the the Gormenghast in tow.

They docked at Phobos station, and some time a few days later the station had a huge explosion, it has been floating in space for 4 days, a dead hulk. 

No rescue mission has been sent in for survivors as it is not known if it could explode again. 

And then they activated a video feed.

The PCs saw a video from a remote drone flying in close to the station and using a spotlight to highlight the station, gaping holes are everywhere. You can see bodies floating, twisted, burned and frozen.

And you can see the alien crystalline creatures as well.

That got some deep intakes of breath and some “NO WAY’s”

So the military had a psi there with them, and they were going to scan each crewmember to ask them how this creature ended up on the space station. They knew that the PCs had encountered this creature, they were debriefed earlier. They just wanted to find the person responsible for letting them out.

What had happened was that the men that bought the creature from the PC and NPC flew out of the asteroid belt and they started to duplicate on their ship, quickly taking it out of commission and overrunning the ship. The patrol boat took a few back unintentionally and they ended up in the space station, and eventually the damage they did to the station caused a reactor overload and it blew up.

Now, I am a fair ref, I don’t maximize the power of the NPCs and monsters all the time, and I let the dice stand when I roll. This means I often randomize things. In this case I rolled to see how powerful the psi was that the military sent. I rolled a level two telepath, which meant that they could read surface thoughts, not memories, and that the target gets a save to see if they can block the attempt, in this case by focusing their thoughts to avoid thinking things that would incriminate them. 

The psi went around the table scanning each PC and asking them if they had let the creature loose. Each one denied it, was scanned and cleared. Then it got to the PC engineer. 

As a fun metagaming aside, I had determined that they should all level up after returning from this mission, but they decided to do that at the end of the session as they wanted to get started. The PC engineer asked if he could be leveled up as that would improve his saves. We did that on the spot, and he rolled.

He made it.

So they were conditionally discharged at that point, as there were still 6 NPC crew members to chase down, and any one of them might have been responsible. I will return to this later as the military will eventually track down the NPC engineer and he will confess, and then they will come back for the PC engineer, but that won’t be for a while.

Role playing gold.

So they left. The military removed the ban on them speaking to the press, they weren’t allowed to discuss the alien crystalline creature in any capacity, but otherwise they were free to speak about their mission. However, the military did release a story to the press that the asteroid belt where the crystalline creatures were found was theorized to be a former planet, and that these creatures (which were now known to the public thanks to the space station accident) were claimed to be inhabitants of that long dead planet that had survived for years on scattered asteroids in the belt.

Sometimes the story just writes itself.

So the group had a ship, and had to decide what to do. They hired a press agent and decided they would be celebrites for a while.

That I didn’t see coming.

I decided at that point to have some fun. I had a rich corporate tycoon contact the group and ask them to accompany him on his private starship along with a group of exclusive passengers that wanted to meet the intrepid explorers. They could bring their ship along behind so they could leave when they wanted, and he promised they would be treated well. He was also the captain. Regiminon Carallo the 3rd, heir to the Carallo salt empire.

As this was an exclusive thing, and they would be the first people to meet the PCs since their intergalactic mission, they were willing to pay big.

They loved it. So they went to the Tartarus, fired her up, and flew out to meet the TLS Gold Star, heading out for a loop from Earth to Venus and back again.

They caught up with the Gold Star and boarded, the PC crewmembers all went on board and left their ship to be piloted by several NPC crew. The first event planned was a dinner party, they were seated at the captain’s table along with a dozen super wealthy passengers.

We RP’d the whole dinner conversation, it was an absolute blast. I had fun at their expense by playing this exactly as a group of rich, privileged people would play it, asking intrusive, completely inappropriate questions because they were used to being given their way.

Everyone sat down and the captain got everyone’s attention and led off with this:

“So, rumor has it two of your crew died on this mission, tell us how THAT happened”

It was a hoot, all the players looked at each other confused, what do we say? The PC who is the captain of the Tartarus answered by recounting events. They of course sounded crazy (jumping on to a giant flying bat and missing, plunging 400 feet to a crushing end, crewmember electrocuted in an “accident” and tossed out the airlock by a panicking engineering tech), and there was immediate speculation (“died of an accident, SURE SURE, jumped on to a passing giant bat, SURE SURE). 

“Rumor has it you brought back an alien life form as well, see what happened to that space station around Phobos, dreadful thing that. Do you feel guilty about what happened?”

I watched them squirm. 

Then I went in for the kill, one of the super wealthy passengers had his personal psi along with him, and he was a level 3, so he could read memories as well. The guest, one Rac Kinnor, megastar vocalist for the band Hogan’s Heroes, pointed at the psi, made a comment about him being “VERY perceptive”, smiled at the PC engineer and asked him if he knew what happened with the alien crystal creatures, taunting him and baiting him to confess in front of everyone before his psi revealed the truth. 

At this point the PC engineer decided he had to do something to distract everyone. He has perform as a skill, and he stood up, shouted “DESSERT”!, pointing at the kitchen, and the dessert was brought to the tables, a fantastic gelato/wine infusion affair carved into exotic shapes and served on plates of solid crystallized sugar.

I rolled a difficulty 8 check to see if this distraction would work or not, and it DID!, the guests forgot about the call out and focused on dessert.

That was cool.

The PC engineer went over to Rac and they disappeared together to the bar to talk. Rac told him that he represented a VERY wealthy person that wanted to buy these crystal creatures off of him. He was willing to pay a million credits for one of these creatures.

The PC engineer was interested, and starting to think that these creatures might be more trouble than they are worth, particularly if they find his NPC partner in crime and he gives them up. 

Then Rac added another wrinkle, sell his mysterious buyer ALL of the creatures that he had, so that the buyer would be the only person with these creatures (remembering that he didn’t know they could replicate) and the offer went up to 5 million credits.

The PC engineer thought about that one and decided to go for it. He accepted the offer, 1 M credits were transferred to his account on the spot, the other 4 M would come on delivery and proof that he had given them all over.

The last event of the session happened when the bounty hunter showed up. When the buyer who purchased the alien crystal creatures was killed by them in transit his employer didn’t get his aliens. The employer hired an android bounty hunter to find the PCs and get the aliens he paid good money for. The party didn’t know this. However, the android had snuck on to the Gold Star and was working as crew on the ship when the party arrived.

I rolled randomly to see which of the party members was alone for long enough to be ambushed, the party communications officer (the psi) came up. When she was headed back to her cabin after the dinner party she was alone in the hall when the android came by. As he passed by her in the hall his hand shot out and grabbed her around the neck.

And then she teleported away to another PC’s cabin.

That’s where we broke for the session.

I have to say how deeply impressed I am with this system. Each session covers so many different kinds of play, and does so seamlessly. The game world is wide open, and they are loving the process of exploring it and going in any direction they want. We have had awesome exploration, faction play, intrigue, mystery, role play and combat. I learned the system in about a week and within about three sessions I was comfortable enough to improvise.

Highly recommended.

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